KeepME Warm—Keeps Maine Safe

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Governor Baldacci has always believed in the generosity of the people of Maine. “Neighbors helping neighbors,” is how he has described his community action program, KeepME Warm. Over the past two years the program winterized 4,000 homes, helping to save low-income residents as much as $250 per year.  Every year he has been on hand helping out, calking windows, insulating furnaces, and putting plastic on skirting boards.

Keeping warm in Maine during the winter is serious business.

To some it means the difference between staying healthy and becoming ill. It can be a matter of life or death.

“We can no longer wait for the federal government to step up and do its part. We must act, and quickly, to keep our neighbors warm and safe,” said the governor.

When oil prices began to climb, the governor demanded an increase in Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds from Washington, DC, but he had no intention on relying on the Bush administration.

He took swift action on his own, for the well-being of Maine’s citizens.

Last November 4 he announced his new program called the KeepME Warm Charitable Fuel Fund. With the program, state government would put $5 million aside for the most vulnerable citizens of the state for fuel purchases. An additional $5 million is being raised by community organizations, companies and individuals in a grass-roots endeavor.

Using his collation building skills he brought together three of Maine’s former governors, Angus King, John McKernan, and Joseph Brennan, to help with his fuel fund. Governor Baldacci convinced them that the welfare of the people of Maine transcends party affiliations.

They recorded a radio announcement that was aired on 42 stations to spread the word about the charitable fuel fund, asking the citizens of Maine to donate a few dollars to help their neighbors in need.

“As governors, we have put all differences aside and come together to help Mainers in need,” Governor Baldacci said. “The money generated from the Public Service Announcements will help our seniors and our disabled stay warm this winter.”

On November 15 the governor brought together 35 representatives of different faiths, the Maine Municipal Association, community action agencies, and community service centers from across the state to discuss raising money for the fund and coordinating efforts.

"We appreciate the governor's leadership in this energy crisis and his approach to involving the entire community in helping our neighbors. It feels rewarding to hear the governors of Maine speak with one voice when it comes to helping Maine citizens get through this winter and make plans for the next," said Fenwick Fowler, head of a community action network.

Two teenagers from Wilton put their allowance money aside, artists created special works to be auctioned off, charity dinners have been held throughout the state, companies have pooled resources, all in aid of the fund.

Pamela Everett literally found herself out in the cold when her money ran out, along with her heating oil. Everett makes just above the LIHEAP?s requirements for fuel assistance. A single mother who relies on child support and a disability check, she had no money left at the end of the month.

"I had not a red cent," said Everett, who found out in the nick of time that she was eligible for $300 from the governor's charitable fuel fund. When the money came through she said, "I thought I was going to fall down because I was so appreciative. I was so grateful. It will get me through until spring. It really was a lifesaver."

"Money from the fund can be used for both LIHEAP recipients who have used up their LIHEAP benefit (but still have heating needs) and for those households who are just above the LIHEAP eligibility level but are facing a heating problem," said Dick Davis, the governor's senior advisor.

"The maximum income level for non-LIHEAP recipients is equal to 70 percent of the 'area median income' for the county in which they live."

Ten Community Action Programs around the state are receiving and dispersing the KeepME Warm funds. "Any money that comes in is distributed to those agencies every two weeks," said Davis.

Each Community Action Program has basic eligibility requirements for the funds, but differs depending on location.

Oil prices in Maine have jumped from an average of $1.91 a gallon on Feb. 13 last year to $2.35 on Feb. 13 this year, a 23 percent increase. Over the past three years, heating oil prices have shot up more than 100 percent. For people earning just enough to get by, the increase can be devastating.

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The governor and Dale McCormick, director of housing, prepare to winterize a home. The KeepME Warm program is the first public-private partnership of its kind.

The number of applications for LIHEAP funding is on the rise this winter, mainly because of the increase in the price of oil. This winter over 48,000 households signed up, at least 2,000 more than last year.

Without the governor's additional funding efforts, LIHEAP could only provide needy families in Maine with about 180 gallons of oil each - about half a tank.

"The governor responded in light of the fact that the federal government has not increased funding significantly to the LIHEAP program, and fuel prices have doubled in the past two to three years," said Beth Nagusky, director of Maine's Office of Energy Independence and Security  - an office created by the governor.

Because of Governor Baldacci?s established programs, Maine government already purchases 30-40 percent of its electricity form renewable power and uses biodiesel to heat state buildings. His transportation efficiency measures have reduced state employee travel 2.3 percent and fuel consumption by 4 percent. So, when oil prices rose, state government found itself in good standing.

Last December, for the first time in living memory the governor, the congressional delegation and leaders of the Maine Senate and House met at the Capitol. There they publicly agreed to work together in a coordinated effort to help Mainers with fuel assistance and put pressure on Washington, DC.

In Washington, DC Congressman Tom Allen joined with other members of Congress from Northeastern states in a bipartisan letter that appealed to President Bush for an increase in funding this year for LIHEAP and for targeting the additional funds to the nation’s coldest states.

“On January 5th, the federal Department of Health and Human Services released $100 million in emergency LIHEAP funding. But, instead of targeting this emergency funding to cold-weather states, HHS chose to distribute it based on the overall population of each state plus the percentage of low-income households using heating oil and natural gas. This allocation formula was unfair to cold-weather states like Maine, which received just $1.1 million in additional funds. Our letter urges the president to seek more LIHEAP funding and target that funding where it is needed most,” Allen said.

Congressman Michaud introduced legislation that is intended to increase funding for the LIHEAP.

The resolution calls on the top ten oil companies in the world, that made more than $100 billion in profits in 2004, to donate a small percentage of these profits to help low-income families through LIHEAP.

“This would be a powerful way for some of our top companies to demonstrate responsible corporate citizenship without new regulations, and it would help countless families make it through the rest of this winter,” Michaud said.